At one time considered an essential for any well dressed table setting, the charger plate fell out of favor in the latter part of the 20th century, but it still has a place as an important component of formal dining. Chargers are simply underplates that are used at each place setting of a formal table. Interestingly enough, there are some varying schools of thought on how to use the plates to best effect.
The charger should be larger than the actual dinner and salad plates used to hold the food. At one time, a proper one was always made of either pewter or stainless steel coated with gold. Those used today can be made of everything from plastic resin to silver.
What appears to matter most is that the plate should compliment the choices of china, silverware, and general decor of the table dressing. It may be used with or without placemats, depending on the degree of formality employed by the place setting.
One school of thought states that charger plates are meant simply to act as placeholders until the actual china plates are brought to the table. This would mean that the server would remove it from the place setting at the same time the first course was offered to the guest. The plate is whisked away, never to be seen again for the remainder of the meal.
Others claim that the charger should remain until the dessert course is served. This would mean it would remain in place to receive the soup, salad, and entree courses, and only be removed from the table when it was time to end the meal with the sweets. A relatively regionalized custom involves placing the plates to the side of the place setting once the meal begins, where they can be used for cocktail glasses and other dinner utensils as they are no longer needed.
Whichever procedure is followed, there is no doubt that the use of the right chargers can add a touch of elegance to the table. By picking up on design elements related to the table setting, the choice of colors, and the pattern used for the china, the plate will enhance the beauty of the other pieces and create a sense of a fully prepared table.
With so many different styles and materials to choose from today, it is relatively easy to purchase chargers that will fit into just about every budget. Many home stores, general retail dealers and china shops will carry them in a wide range of colors and designs, making it easy to find something to compliment any china pattern.